‘The Art of Storytelling’ Masterclass at D&AD

Here at Ashfield Digital & Creative, we’re big on the power of storytelling.

We have seen how changing a client’s med comms message from a bluntly direct, unengaging narrative to an immersive, interesting story can influence everything from improved recall to increased sales.

So, it made sense to send one of our copywriters, David, to ‘The Art of Storytelling’ Masterclass run by D&AD to pick up expert insight and professional tips from some of the best in the storytelling business.


Formed in 1962, British Design & Art Direction – now shortened to D&AD – was established to “stimulate and enable excellence in design and advertising”.

All its training courses are based on the premise that “whatever it is you want to learn, it needs to be taught by the best.”

And its globally-renowned courses are designed to help agencies ‘embed the power of creativity into (their and their clients’) business to increase profitability’.

“The D&AD Masterclass leaders were Graham Smith and Mark Robson.

These are names you may not recognise, but I can guarantee you’ll have watched one of the 100s of comedy shows they’ve either commissioned, helped develop or produce during their careers at the BBC, ITV, C4 and Sky – everything from cult classics like Simon Pegg’s ‘Spaced’ to good old Saturday night family viewing shows with the likes of David Walliams.

Mid-morning, we were also joined for an hour or so by Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley; two of the most prolific comedy writers working in the UK at the moment.

Their marmalade-covered paws are all over the two Paddington movies, they created Philomena Cunk for Charlie’s Brooker’s ScreenWipe and they write all the ‘adult’ Ladybird Books which prop up the till at Waterstones.

Most gloriously, they were two of the masterminds behind The Framley Examiner, the funniest website on the internet (that’s not opinion – it’s a fact).

Obviously, with such a strong entertainment background, the team had on a much wider creative focus than just marketing – and certainly the even more specific healthcare part of it.

And this was both the strength and weakness of the course.

Dealing with the negative first, it would be easy to dismiss broadcast storytelling as irrelevant to its less celebrated healthcare marketing half-cousin.

It’s a lot easier to tell a story on a cinema screen when you have 120 minutes and an eager audience who have paid to come and see it.

(Compare that to someone absent-mindedly swiping along the LinkedIn feed on their mobile while they’re grabbing 20 minutes for lunch in the office kitchen.)

So, when the course focused on some of the real fine detail of storytelling it did feel a little alien to Ashfield Digital & Creative’s day-to-day med comms work.


Here’s an example…


On the course, we learnt how characters are key to defining the story.

(Just think how often you read a two-star film review which dismisses the movie because ‘I didn’t care what happened to the characters’.)

But, how can you write meaningful, empathetic characters into a static MPU?

There’s a good chance your communications won’t include a specific character. And certainly not a cast.

However, your marketing can be characterful; making it interesting, involving and suggesting your organisation has a more rounded and human personality than your competitors.

(Incidentally, just adding ‘characters’ doesn’t suddenly make it storytelling; a meerkat discussing car insurance isn’t storytelling – it’s just clever advertisers adding a layer of novel interest on top of a basic retail proposition.)

When we dug deeper into the essence of storytelling being found in ‘Conflict’ and looking at how this was dramatized through the ‘Story Arc’, again, it felt like this could play a little indulgently if I tried to weave it into an ‘Invitation to Congress’ email or some Clinical Trial material.


So…how was all this relevant to Medical Communications?

Flipping to the positive, this course persuasively reinforced that everything is a story.

Every PowerPoint presentation. Every Facebook post.

They are messages with meaning – and we are attempting to share that meaning with our audience.

So, although we may not be sharing the triumphs or tragedies of our character’s journey, we are sharing healthcare information which we want to be understood, absorbed and appreciated.

Which brings me to my key out-take from the day.

I would argue that successfully telling your story needn’t necessarily involve what is true storytelling.

This isn’t just semantics either.

A product or service’s story can be delivered using storytelling’s BEGINNING/ MIDDLE/ END.

The difference is, we don’t begin with an ‘Inciting Incident’ and end with the ‘Climax’.

Our healthcare stories are more typically…this is what is/ this is what it does/ this is why it’s good.

Or, this is the situation/this is how we change it/ this is what it means for patients.

But, the real depth found in true storytelling – where we’re looking at character, conflict and fuller, more complex narrative arcs – could potentially get in the way and obscure the point of the marketing communication.

We should always being trying to make everything as simple as possible.

Especially in healthcare communications, where simple can be the most difficult thing to achieve.

So let’s not make it harder for ourselves by trying to be clever-clever and adding layers of complexity and nuance over our core message.

Time-poor HCPs won’t thank us for weaving a beguiling narrative around the detail they were expecting to be presented to them.

Of course, that’s not to say we default to a formulaic, passive Route One though.

Instead, we should use the principles of storytelling more nimbly – telling our stories in clear, structured and engaging ways:

  • drawing the reader in with a stimulating premise (whether that’s a headline, subject line or exhibition stand header board BEGINNING
  • developing our narrative with pace and momentum MIDDLE
  • finishing with an empowering, inspiring pay-off. END.

And then we can all live happily ever after.”

D&AD Masterclasses don’t just focus on creative training. They cover all sorts of topics from writing the perfect brief to unlocking strategic insights. You can find out more about the Masterclass Programme here